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Posts Tagged ‘Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin’

What do Puccini and Hindemith have in common? Exactly – they’ve composed operas about nuns. That is more or less the spirit of the concert offered this evening by conductor Hans Graf and the DSO Berlin. Although the one-acters couldn’t be more different from each other, the very contrast made this evening interesting: while Suor Angelica is about daylight, compliance and forgiveness, Sancta Susanna is nocturnal, transgressive and unforgiving. Both are richly orchestrated, in spite of the “intimate” atmosphere, and feature big roles for soprano and mezzo.

Barbara Frittoli was supposed to sing the title role in the Puccini opera, but fell ill and was replaced in the last minute by Maria Luigia Borsi. I had never heard this Italian soprano before and the clips on Youtube did not sound promising. Her voice has a bright, immediate, almost conversational tonal quality in its middle register reminiscent of some great Italian sopranos from the past; her high register lacks roundness, though, even if she has stamina enough for exposed acuti and there are bumpy moments now and then (the high pianissimi were not really there, for example). Although she acted (the concert performance was semi-staged) with passionate conviction, she had the score on her hands and I suppose that, should she have had more time to prepare herself for an unexpected debut in the Philharmonie in Berlin, maybe these minor flaws could have been dealt with. What matters is that, even if one has famous recordings in mind (Tebaldi, de los Angeles, Ricciarelli, Scotto, Popp – as you see, the discography is extremely glamorous), Borsi could nonetheless offer an extremely touching performance. In spite of a disappointing final note, Senza mamma was phrased with extreme musical sensitivity and feeling. She has a lovely personality, very akin to the role in its sincerity and fervor – and was received in similar mood by the audience. Her Zia Principessa was the versatile Lioba Braun, whose creamy mezzo, blossoming in rich low notes, and dramatic intelligence and concentration made her performance three-dimensional and almost congenial. The remaining roles were well cast, especially with soloists from the Deutsche Oper: Heidi Stober as a youthful, innoncent-sounding Suor Genovieffa; Jana Kurucová as a clear, firm-toned Suora Zelatrice; Ewa Wolak rock-solid as the Maestra delle novizie and Liane Keegan as the Abbess. Although choral singing from Cantus Domus and Ensemberlino Vocale sounded a bit on the white-toned side for Puccini, it was, maybe because of that, particularly clear harmonically speaking and ultimately “realistic” (I mean, there is no Monteverdi Choir in a regular Abbey). The richness of the DSO playing, guided by Hans Graf’s simultaneous respect for the style and his eagerness to show the score in its more “modern” guise just demonstrated why Puccini was so proud of what he did here.

I confess: I have never heard Sancta Susanna before. It is rarely staged (well, I can guess that particularly not in catholic countries…) and its 25-minute length makes it even difficult to stage it as a double-bill. In any case, it is a very interesting piece, with a mysterious atmosphere and two really well-written leading parts. Melanie Diener was utterly compelling in the title role, a great performance, unfailingly rich and sensuous toned, even in its most exposed moments, full of insight and magnetism. Lioba Braun was again an alert, fruity-toned partner as Klementia, and Ewa Wolak made a strong impact in her short contribution as the Old Nun.

The program would also feature Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase, which is the right kind of piece for the lush sonorities of the DSO, one of Germany’s greatest orchestras, the massive sound produced by its strings never overshadowed by the brass being its hallmark, here featured to grandiose effect.

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Masaaki Suzuki, the man behind the complete series of Bach cantatas with the Bach Collegium Japan, is now regarded as an authority in the music from the Master. It is, nonetheless, curious that the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester has invited this specialist used to his excellent period instrument band to conduct a very typical German Romantic orchestra – the encounter of these both worlds seemed promising enough, especially when the second item of the program is Mozart’s encyclopaedic Mass KV 427.

The opening piece in the program was Bach’s Orchestral Suite no.1. At first, the warmth of the orchestral sound was simply irresistible, but in the fugal section the conductor simply pressed his musicians too hard. While the woodwind wowed the audience with breathtaking accuracy, the strings were operating really close to their limits. As the egg-timer treatment did not bring about any expressive gain, I wonder if the idea was ultimately wise. In the remaining dances, there was a sensation of straight-jacked elegance, but very little charm (I write that as I hear Jordi Savall’s more relaxed and more seductive performance recorded in Metz).

The Christmas cantata Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63, didn’t dismiss the atmosphere of nervousness. While the tempi are not dissimilar from his recording for BIS, his Japanese performance sounds exhilarating and festive, maybe because his musicians are used to the approach. There he had more appropriate soloists too. Simona Saturová has exquisite high notes, but seemed uncomfortable with phrasing with Bachian instrumental poise. Moreover, she has something of a lisp that disfigures her pronunciation of the letter “s” (as in sun – not as in Senta). Truth be said, that duet is quite unsingable – and, if I had to choose, I would say she was rather an asset than a liability. Although Annette Markert sounds dignified enough in her typically oratorio contralto, the sound is a bit matronly and not clean enough – the matching with the tenor’s voice in their duet was problematic. It is not her fault that Bach has written the part in an uncomfortable area of the contralto voice (and Markert must be praised for her seamless passaggio), but even a firmer-toned and sharper-focused (and more expressive too!) singer such as Sara Mingardo in Gardiner’s live recording found it a bit difficult, while countertenor Yoshikazu Mera in Suzuki’s CD could not help finding the tessitura most congenial (I am no connoisseur, but – correct me if I am wrong – this aria was not written for a woman’s voice). Tenor Timothy Fallon, a replacement for Lothar Odynius, does not have the poised quality of a Bach tenor, but, other than this, offered a very decent performance. For his credit, this does not seem to be his usual repertoire. Dominik Wörner has a Klaus Mertens-like voice, baritone-like yet resonant in its lower reaches, but very light and short in harmonics in the upper end of his register. As usual, the RIAS-Kammerchor sang expressively and stylishly.

Suzuki’s approach to the Mass KV 427 would be more interesting, if no less problematic. Nikolaus Harnoncourt had said something like “baroque music speaks, while Romantic music paints”. The problem remains with what to do with Classicism – if it is true that Mozart still uses the “codes” of baroque music, his whole aesthetic approach couldn’t be more different from Bach’s or Handel’s, even when he is finding inspiration in them, as in this case. This evening performance couldn’t be more illustrative – Suzuki really let this score “speak”, highlighting every little expressive trait in a very discursive way. I confess I have discovered many “new” sides of this work this evening, but this treatment hampered the musical flow and drained some of the spontaneous grace from it. And the tempi were really fast – the RIAS Kammerchor (which has sung this very work earlier this year under their conductor Rademann and with an excellent soprano II in Stella Doufexis) met the challenge with brio: their accuracy and energy in the zippiest Cum sancto spiritu fugue in my experience was something to marvel. In the choral movements, this performance produced its right effect and paid off the conductor’s adventurousness. The solo parts are notoriously difficult and the conductor did not make anyone’s life easy. While no singer has disgraced him or herself, a performance that demands such dexterity of its soloists requires bel canto singers who could make light of the strain and show off virtuoso quality – Aleksandra Kurzak and Joyce DiDonato would have probably taken the audience to some sort of Koloraturfest. As it was, Saturová had the elements of greatness, but they didn’t build up to greatness itself. As said above, her high notes are glittering and project beautifully and she can trill, but there are fluttery or metallic moments and her middle register sometimes sounds as if it belonged to some older and more worn-voiced than her. She has sense of style and good instincts, but, well, she is from Bratislava, a city that “trained” Lucia Popp, Edita Gruberová and Luba Orgonasová, who were all of them immaculate soloists who went far beyond the notes themselves in this piece. I wonder if it is not time for Véronique Gens to move on – she had to work hard for the fioriture, her middle and low registers seemed reined-in and her high notes blossomed sometimes too exuberantly for this piece. I do have a soft spot for her sensuous and creamy voice, but I guess it is time to sing with the capital and tackle something heartier.

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Of course, everbody knows the Berliner Philharmoniker. It is one of the most famous orchestras in the world. In the days of Herbert von Karajan, it was regarded the embodiment of what every orchestra should be. But the Karajan days are long gone and, after a row of conductors who have taken for granted the orchestra’s sound (instead of building it), one asks himself if one should really see it as a primo inter pares among the world’s leading orchestras. I would dare say not. I would even dare say “not even in Berlin”.

Although the paring of Beethoven’s Piano concerto no. 4 to Shostakovich’s 11th symphony is like eating the dessert before the main dish, conductor Ingo Metzmacher produced a clear, forward moving performance that maybe required an approach less detached than the Chopin-ized style with which Nelson Freire played the solo piano part.

One always refer to the 1905 Symphony as film music without the film. Under Metzmacher, the DSO proved that images would only spoil the fun. Every musician in the orchestra played as a soloist, invested in the theatrical aspects of the work to produce a performance that was at once gripping and intense and millimetrically accurate. It was an orchestral tour de force as I have rarely seen in my life. I am not a connoiseur of Shostakovich music and cannot compare with hundreds of other performances – but I can say that the thunderous applauses for a not-entirely-popular work of around one hour of length is an evidence of how special this performance was.

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